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Atlantic County Freeholder John Risley. (Photo: Nikita Biryukov for the New Jersey Globe)

Atlantic Democrats bank on coattails while Risley leans on record

Five countywide races in Atlantic next week

By Nikita Biryukov, October 27 2020 4:02 pm

Democrats in Atlantic County are hoping former Vice President Joe Biden and House challenger Amy Kennedy’s coattails will win them another seat on the county’s freeholder board.

“At the end of the day, if Biden and Amy do well, we’re all going to do well. If Biden and Amy don’t do well, we’re not going to do well,” Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman said. “It’s kind of as simple as that.”

Atlantic’s five countywide races will see three incumbent Democrats and two Republican office holders face off in their own contests.

Democratic At-Large Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick and challenger Celeste Fernandez, who came close to unseating longtime Freeholder Frank Formica in 2018, face At-Large Freeholder John Risley and Somers Point Councilman James Toto.

Risley, who has a combined 18 years on the board (he lost re-election in 2004 but won the seat again in 2011), is leaning on his record and name recognition to secure another win.

“I’ve been around a long time,” he said. “People know me, they know my track record. They know how hard I work and the passion I put into it.”

And though he previously lost his seat during a presidential election year, Risley isn’t concerned that Biden’s position on the ballot could bump him out of office.

“I’ve run in presidentials before, and of course presidentials have large turnouts,” he said. “In Atlantic County though, we have pretty educated voters who look at what’s going on locally here. That’s why many of the municipalities in Atlantic County are controlled.”

Kennedy is running to oust Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis), who was elected as a Democrat in 2018 but defected to the GOP in December after losing support among his original party’s rank-and-file voters.

He’s since irrevocably tied himself to the president, hoping the traditionally-Republican second district will deliver him to a second term in Congress.

Polls over the last two months have consistently shown Kennedy holding a slim but significant lead over Van Drew.

Further down the ballot, Democratic Sheriff Eric Scheffler is defending a challenge from Republican Joe “Tokyo” O’Donoghue, a former Atlantic County sheriff’s officer who has launched attacks at the incumbent over Kennedy’s flaccid support of the defund the police movement and at Gov. Phil Murphy over a measure that’ll see thousands of inmates around the state released early to stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

Surrogate James Curcio, Atlantic’s only Republican constitutional officer, faces a challenge from Stephen Dicht.

Former Atlantic City School Board President Thelma Witherspoon, a Democrat, and Egg Harbor Township Committeeman Andrew Parker are seeking Freeholder Ashley Bennet’s District 3 seat. Bennet decided not to run for re-election after dropping her second district House bid in March.

Suleiman said that race could go either way.

Despite Democrats’ advantages at the top of the ballot — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the county by 8,234 votes in 2016 — the Democratic chairman wasn’t prepared to predict a blowout this year.

“We’re still going up against 80 years of an Atlantic County Republican Machine,” he said. “That shouldn’t be discounted.”

Even if they win, they’ll still be a 5-4 minority on the freeholder board, but that would set up a control election next year.

There are 18,374 more Democrats than Republicans in Atlantic County.

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